TORONTO -- If Harold Ballard was still alive, he would have suggested that John Farrell show up with a paper bag over his head Friday night in Rogers Centre.
Old hockey fans remember the story. Ballard, the former Toronto Maple Leafs owner who was as bombastic and impulsive as Steinbrenner, once fired his coach, Roger Neilson, but when that decision was met with outrage by everyone, including his players, Ballard relented, but not without making a bizarre request of his reinstated coach. He wanted Neilson to show up at the next game with a paper bag over his head, as the "mystery" coach. Neilson got his job back, but balked at the bag.
The circumstances surrounding Farrell's departure from Toronto as manager of the Blue Jays were far different from that 1979 episode, of course. He wasn't fired. He had a year left on his contract when the Sox asked for permission last October to hire him, and the Jays eventually let him go, with the Sox giving up infielder Mike Aviles as compensation.
Farrell's defection to the Red Sox was widely seen as an act ranging between blatant disloyalty and treason in Jays circles, where some interpreted Farrell's two years as manager in Toronto as little more than an apprenticeship for the Sox position. That interpretation was reinforced when Farrell referred to Boston as a "dream job."
That's why the TV cameras were lined up three deep outside the visitors' clubhouse, where Farrell spent 10 minutes addressing his return to the scene of the crime, as it were. The session fell short of being a Canadian inquisition; Farrell didn't break a sweat during the 10 minutes of questioning. Nothing like this tweet from a Toronto sportscaster named Sid Seixeiro, who wrote:
"In honour of 'John Farrell Day' banks in Ontario will now allow you to break a previously agreed to mortgage after only two years."
(As if it was novel for a coach or manager in sports to get out of a contract.)
"It's good to be back," Farrell said. "I fully expected this [media attention], as it has been reported by a number of people leading up to this. It's good to be back in Toronto, for sure."
When asked what message he had for Jays fans regarding his departure, he said: "This is a great city. Unfortunately, some things the past couple of years didn't play out the way we hoped, we planned, we intended, but I will say when I walked in today from the hotel, a 45-minute walk, I had a chance to meet up and talk to people on the streets coming in here, and you know what? Surprisingly, a number of people welcomed me back, and to have pleasant conversations on the way in was a good way to come to the ballpark."
Shocked by that?
"Not really, no," he said. "Again I can fully respect and understand the sentiment, the questions and what might transpire here tonight."
Judging by the response he got this spring in Dunedin, the Florida home of the Jays, Farrell could expect to be booed any time he popped his head out of the dugout this weekend. He was when he was introduced, and the boos grew even louder when he brought the lineup card to home plate. Farrell tipped his cap on the way back to the dugout.
Reporters covering the Jays said there was more ballpark security than usual during batting practice, although the place remained partially filled until just before game time.
"That to me shows that there's a lot of passion here for baseball," Farrell said of the anticipated reaction. "And certainly, I fully respect all the changes that have gone on this offseason with the Blue Jays. I thoroughly enjoyed my time. To work with Alex [Anthopoulos, the GM] and Paul Beeston [CEO] was a great opportunity."
The "dream job" comment was then resurrected, attached to an inquiry of how it had measured up to date. Farrell was at his diplomatic smoothest in his response.
"I think if you were to ask anybody who's got an ambition to manage in the big leagues, they'd probably give you the same response," Farrell said. "How honored and fortunate you are to have one of these positions, to work towards achieving that professional goal.
"So this is a rare opportunity, and a unique set of circumstances."
Would Farrell have done anything differently?
"That question came up repeatedly throughout the second half of last year," he said, "and to look back, I know I can look myself in the mirror and know that I gave this organization, the Blue Jays organization, everything I had on a given day. To work as diligently, as thoroughly as possible, to win the game on a given night, and we had to deal with a lot of things along the way."
The Blue Jays regressed slightly in 2011, Farrell's first season in Toronto, going 81-81 after finishing 85-77 the year before under Cito Gaston. Beset by a plague of injuries reminiscent of what Bobby Valentine endured last season in Boston, the Jays under Farrell in 2012 went 73-89, and Farrell heard griping about sloppy play and a less than fully invested group of players. There was the embarrassing episode in which shortstop Yunel Escobar, since traded away, took the field with an anti-gay slur written on his face in eye black.
The Jays went back to the future and replaced Farrell with John Gibbons, who managed the team with 50 games left in 2004 (replacing Carlos Tosca), until he was fired and replaced by Gaston in midseason 2008.
"I'm sure there are going to be some boos tonight," Farrell said. "I think that goes back to how much people care. That's a good thing. It's a good thing for the Blue Jays, and they have a lot to be excited about. This is a darn good team that we're going up against, and we've got our hands full."